The 38th season of SNL was not its best. After Mick Jagger sang Kristen Wiig off the show last year in an emotional farewell (Andy Samberg and Abby Elliott departed with her), this season’s exits — both rumored and confirmed — were given a subtler treatment. This season's 21 episodes were occasionally brilliant, but more often they seemed to belong to a kind of blameless nowheresville in need of some substantial bulldozing. The veterans — Fred Armisen has been kicking around for 10 seasons, while Jason Sudeikis became a featured player in 2005 — have appeared understandably tired; the death of the Digital Short haunted bad episodes, whispering, "Remember me fondly?" from a corner of the ceiling. The writing was not universally bad, but it was uneven, perhaps even more so than in previous seasons. And whereas Wiig’s exit was somehow gut-wrenching (which "Ruby Tuesday" "She's a Rainbow" can be), when Bill Hader and Armisen bid good-bye to Lorne Michaels & Co., it felt like the right time for them to go. Sudeikis is probably out as well, and head writer and "Weekend Update" anchor Seth Meyers will only be able to stay with the show through the fall until he takes over Late Night, which means that next season has no choice but to attempt an evolutionary leap. Again. It might be auspicious: Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong have proven to be formidable additions to the roster, and Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan have each hit their stride; there’s also the opportunity to bring in more people of color, wackier writers, and to mess with the format in a way that might shake the stale cooties out of the sheets a little bit. You have to know when to leave the party, and this mass exodus seems to indicate that it’s time to flip on the lights and survey the room. Being the host of this kind of show isn’t exactly a thankless exercise, but the host was not the point. Ben Affleck was tasked with competing for attention not only with musical guest Kanye West, whose head was basically spinning on his neck in a self-consuming Yeezus rapture-state (love you, ’Ye), but the departing cast members' curtain calls. Did he succeed? Of course not, but he wasn’t meant to.
This weekend's Saturday Night Live has the auspices of greatness. It's not only the season finale, but also the last episode for Bill Hader (and quite possibly for Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis as well). And while Hader has already said there's nothing as dramatic planned for his good-bye as Kristen Wiig's lovely "She's a Rainbow" bit — they gotta do something nice, right? Also: Ben Affleck returns to host, but this time as an Oscar-winning director and if you think somehow Matt Damon won't be getting involved to cut his buddy down to size, youh ahh fawkin' crazy. And then there's Kanye as a musical guest: Not only is he embroiled in the most dramatic childbirth process since that of Jesus, he's also got a God-complex album everyone can't wait to hear. Plus, the last time he did SNL, it looked like this.
Bill Hader was an SNL presence so precious, he merits more than one good-bye. His impressions were among the cast’s best (Kate McKinnon, I see you), but he also brought to life original characters that were layered despite the limits, time-wise and otherwise, of the sketches in which they appeared: Stefon, Vinny Vedecci, Greg the Alien, and, though he simultaneously terrified and depressed me, senile reporter Herb Welch. Hader was responsible for the majority of the personae you wanted to hang out with after their four-minute segments ended; they were always so charming, even when they were embodied by a bloodthirsty, guts-hungry take on Dateline’s Keith Morrison. If they were real, you would want to park their imaginary butts on your sofa to take in all of Hader’s Criterion double-feature picks, drink margaritas, and gab. Hader shines bright like a di-mon, and when I attended a showing of The Great Gatsby last night, huddled under a gray cloud of casting-department disappointment, I mentally replaced Tobey Maguire with Bill Hader for a second. He seems able to take on anything, from a hypothetical Nick Carraway to James Carville to creative consulting/producing South Park. As we look forward to Hader’s next move and contemplate the uncertain future of SNL, let’s spend an hour or so staring zonk-eyed at the computer in honor of some of his greatest hits. Cue up the DJ Baby Bok Choy single, everyone. It’s Stefon’s funeral (just kidding, he’ll pop back up in a year to give a special appearance like Gilly) and we’re going to Boof to shoot meth mixed with his ashes.
How long is a year in cultural terms? Or maybe a better question is, when a public figure disappears from a show for a year after a tearful good-bye, at what point does his or her return become what you want it to be? The problem with inviting Kristen Wiig back to host SNL 12 months after her departure to reprise her roles — as Gilly, improvisational songstress Kat, Doonese, a Californian, and the Target Lady — is that we haven't had enough time to miss them yet. The best sketches of the night were the ones that featured Wiig in roles we hadn't seen her in before (scuttling across the ceiling as a Korean water ghost!), but SNL is predictably self-referential, so Wiig's best-of collection was practically obligated to appear. It didn't make for a bad show, especially because of Wiig's matchless energy and the obvious joy on the cast's part to get to play with her again, but the laughs you get from being borne back ceaselessly into the past are always tempered with a little sadness, like showing up to your one-year high school reunion. Being reminded of the events of a year ago lacks the potency of real nostalgia as well as the fresh promise of something that straddles the present and the future, a sketch that works so well the first time around that you crave more of it (and then repeats four times after you've grown unable to stand it anymore). Wiig is still one of the best comediennes out there, but occasionally she was upstaged by her own homecoming.
The cold open was terrible, but the good news is that everything improved from there. C-SPAN's coverage of the Benghazi hearings is trolling for ratings, so Jodi Arias (Nasim Pedrad) and Ariel Castro (Bobby Moynihan) appear to testify as special guest stars. The audience sounded pretty chilly on this little joke desert, but I'll give it points for being brief. Wiig's monologue, during which she sang “I'm So Excited” and danced herself backstage, was charming enough: misidentifying her former cast mates and dressing room, Tasering Kenan Thompson twice, and happening upon a pregnant Maya Rudolph making out with Jonah Hill in the closet (“We're trying to make a baby”) were high points. Gilly's moment was over in a blink, which was good news for me over in the Gilly-averse corner. It's nice that Wiig is poking fun at her camera-1, camera-2 amnesia after such a short absence, but if you didn't already figure that you were in for more old than new sketches, this monologue killed any lingering doubts.
Zach Galifianakis likes to make people uncomfortable, and he's very skilled at it. Besides two previous hosting gigs (pianos, removal of facial hair and hair-hair), Galifianakis's SNL past includes being thrown out of the audience for trespassing and getting canned after two weeks on the job as a writer, so when he advised the audience not to get their hopes up, it seemed like a suitable enough disclaimer: Galifianakis does what he does; he's unwilling, or possibly unable, to do anything else. His shtick hasn't changed much over the years, but his weirdness has found its place in the temperate tropical breezes between the ferns of time. His most recent turn as host was even better than when he dressed up as Annie and lip-synched to "Tomorrow" in 2010. Like a fine, stocky half-Greek wine, his brand of comedy is aging well, and this was a great episode despite universewide disappointment that Jennifer Aniston was nowhere to be found in the final seconds of her look-alike contest spot. That Vanessa Bayer was such a dead ringer only made it a crueler tease. If you need me, I'll be crying over at Darrell's house where I can re-cut everything with more egg rolls and Aniston.
I had an argument recently about the effects of watching a Saturday Night Live host visibly read the cue cards. I was arguing that it's distracting and sometimes seems to imply a lack of skill that undercuts anything good the performer is up to otherwise. My opponent countered that the whole point of SNL is the roughshod immediacy, and since the cue cards can change at any point from rehearsals to the taping, we should just accept it as part of the show's infrastructure. Maybe because the topic was already on my mind, I was completely blown away by Melissa McCarthy's performance this past weekend. It's kind of crazy that she was never a cast member, because she's a sketch prodigy. The second-time host's skills made watching sketches like "Million Dollar Wheel" — a basic throwaway — like an informative course in how to cram scripts into your being, into your soul, so that they still feel unpredictable and improvised. A mediocre bit dies between the time it takes to set up and when you first check to see how much longer it can possibly lie on the floor until production's janitor comes to carry it away on a stretcher. McCarthy never let that happen, because she never really allowed you to feel as though you knew what was going to come next.
The cold open kicked off with Bobby Moynihan as Kim Jong-un delivering two pieces of important news: First, the reopening of a nuclear complex that will leave North Korea's enemies "chagrined and discombobulated;" and, second, lifting a ban on same-sex marriage because "it is simply the right thing to do" (his eyes were opened by his gay nephew's weekly book discussion groups at his apartment — the nephew was executed anyway, but not because of that). Jong-un's open-mindedness isn't an indication that he's switched teams, however — so don't go thinking that! — because he's had relations with over 17 million women, whom he provided with their first orgasms ("this is not a joke. You can applaud"). Just as he trails off into his NCAA tournament pool, Dennis Rodman saunters in wearing polka-dot pants, fist-bumps him, and delivers your "Live from New York!" Remember when Rodman blew up a cold open in 1996? I didn't, but there he is, preserved in his boa. It wasn't my favorite cold open of all time, but it was good enough.
After I finished taking my SNL notes but before I sat down to write this recap, I decided to take the temperature on Justin Timberlake’s fifth ride on the host pony and check in with some of the other media responses to last weekend’s show. Despite theglowingtweets and my own enjoyment of this episode, some of the reviews were lukewarmat best.
Maybe people have reached the JT hype-saturation point? That’s understandable. I think that one of the reasons I loved this episode was the fact that Timberlake is the kind of performer you don’t have to worry about. As is the case with many vets, but particularly one who’s still in the golden career bubble of relevancy, you’re able to put aside any concerns about sweat stains, stutter fumbles, and any kind of projected post-one-a.m. anxiety attack that you imagine he or she will experience when thinking back on a particularly bad sketch. You can relax.
First of all: We missed you, Don Pardo, and I really hope you’re recovering from your broken hip. I’d send you an edible arrangement of candied Z-Shirts if I could. Feel better.
I am familiar with Kevin Hart, and I like him. His energy and delivery have the effect of making me slowly scoot toward the edge of the sofa until I’m basically doing a wall squat. It’s as if he’s telling a particularly engaging story at a loud party, and during his monologue I was thinking that this episode was going to be something special.
My excitement for Christoph Waltz hosting SNL was tempered with some measure of fear because, as we all know, this season has been a little slumpy. Waltz is such a likable and accomplished performer that I felt concerned that the writing would fail him, that we’d watch him flailing around in a jokeless DJ Booth or helplessly stranded in The Situation Room, maybe wearing a large hat with a pair of deelyboppers on it. I would want to reach into my television and save him if it wasn’t working out. But that wasn’t the case. Maybe because of Djesus Uncrossed, maybe because of Waltz pulling off a jaunty dance while begging “Mama let me fly,” or just maybe because of seeing one of my former SNL character nemeses, Regine, get accidentally doused with a glass of what I hope was SUPER chilly white wine, this episode was probably my favorite of the season.
A bunch of pre-teenagers and pre-teenagers-at-heart got to stay up past their bedtimes on Saturday to scream swoonily for Justin Bieber. I know this because I could hear them in the audience. Fans waited in line in the blizzard to get tickets for the show, attempting (and failing) to complete their homework, only vacating their spots in queue if their lives were endangered by frostbite (“We weren’t going to die for Bieber,” said one. “We’re not die-hard fans, literally.”) Justin ordered them pizzas and SNL doled out hot soup so that they might live to see the legal drinking age. I guess that’s pretttty cool, it’s pretttttty cool. The host was a good sport and, despite its lackluster cold open, I liked this episode overall. The best sketch may have only featured Bieber peripherally (The Moroccans of Mulholland Drive), but from singing about searching for sweater puppies (the live kind) to taking on a Californian, the 18-year-old pulled double duty better than I anticipated.
Look: This past SNL might not be one for the books or anything, but it beat the daylights out of the previous one, so let’s just drink to that for now. Adam Levine co-hosted with a set of cue cards that — when they weren’t being reflected in windows during a Catfish parody or casting distracting shadows while Train and Maroon 5 faced off — sent the script waltzing across the limpid pools of Levine’s eyes as he read (a fellow Grantlander called it “Phelpsian”). That’s OK with me, though, because the energy was up and the material was pretty decent. I was sort of into it! Do you disagree? You probably disagree. But see here: “The Sopranos Diaries” could have been written in Swahili and I still would have laughed at Moynihan’s teenage Tony and Armisen’s Paulie Walnuts (even though I’d probably have cast him as Silvio Dante).
OK. You know when you’re having a really brutal week at work — you’re up late like a little tension fossil at night, you’re phoning it in a little bit in the office, you’re clean out of ideas — and then Friday comes and you slay it? You really make Friday your bitch, you punch it right in the eye? And that weekend you congratulate yourself by slamming margaritas and thinking, “I needed this vacation! I’m totally invigorated! I’m going to go into the office on Monday and punch my job in both eyes, then spit in my job’s eye! I’m back, baby!” But then Monday morning arrives and you have a hangover and you realize that you should have spent your vacation sleeping in a bathtub filled with restorative sea salts and drinking $45 pressed juices because last Friday was but a hiccup in your existential rut? Well. Here we are. It’s Monday.
I couldn’t write hilarious sketches week after week, and so I hate to criticize people or group entities whose jobs are more difficult than mine. But my job involves being honest about laughing or not laughing at Saturday Night Live, and I do it somewhat reluctantly when I am stonily wondering if a Starbucks Verismo parody is racist, or repeatedly saying to no one “That’s it?” at a strangely brief "Weekend Update" or the stalled car “Top Dog Chef.” Jennifer Lawrence: Girl, it wasn’t you.
I love Martin Short, but I was still surprised at how good this weekend’s episode of SNL was. This season has been spotty to say the least, and considering the horrific event that happened one day before the taping, it seemed like the holiday-themed show was destined to be like the last two inches of egg nog in the bottle slowly separating in the fridge: Nobody wants it, but abandoning it would be like giving up. Short was featured on the tenth season of Saturday Night — a tumultuous period with some seriously weird opening credits (hot dogs, cockroaches, spray paint) — but, you know, that was 28 years ago, the 62-year-old couldn’t be blamed if he was a little rusty, even if this was his third time hosting. Plus I really didn’t want to see Short playing “Thug #2” or on a “Mission to Mars.” Luckily, we didn’t have to. Plus we got this photo of an embarrassed, post-possible-f-bomb Samuel L. Jackson out of the deal. Everybody wins!
I don’t know where this phrase came from, but along the lines of family nicknames for pacifiers and variations on spaghetti with leftovers in it, I grew up with the line “lose your bones.” It didn’t mean osteoporosis; that would have been sad. It was used as a sort of catchall for a mixture of punchy and silly feelings, like when you’re stuck in a stalled elevator and “Muskrat Love” comes on twice in a row, or when you’re eating dinner and you can hear someone’s dentures clicking and you look down and your slippery shrimp suddenly seems way too slippery and almost grotesque. You get the giggles against your will. In an SNL context it’s a pleasurable sensation: Stefon’s visits are bone thieves, and so was Louis C.K.’s “Last Call” and many of the assorted oddities (thanks, Twitter, for reminding me) of the past 38 seasons. I had big hopes for Jamie Foxx’s gig this past weekend, I really did. I wanted to hold on to my bones as they became long, white, quivery milkshakes; unfortunately, the first half of the show was a disappointment, and I was kind of considering calling in sleepy on this recap because things weren’t looking too good. It wasn’t Foxx’s fault, and I was actually impressed by the fact that he was featured so prominently (in "Weekend Update" and pre-recorded shorts as well as sketches): The fault lies somewhere between “Bitch, What’s the Answer?” and Mrs. Claus on "Update." I know a lot of you liked Mrs. Claus, but I got stuck on “milkfarts” and my face got stuck like this. I’m glad I kept watching, though, because there were some good sketches late in the game (“Dylan McDermott or Dermot Mulroney,” Swarovski crystals hawked by hard-living former porn stars, and the bizarre Maine bayou courtroom hybrid). Plus Foxx as an angry Ding Dong (“you can call me Dong”). Djing Djong unchained!
Since SNL announced that it will occasionally be crowd-sourcing host and musical guest suggestions — and since the first Host of the People (if you don’t count the Betty White campaign), Louis CK, had such a good turn — I’ve been brainstorming my short list of candidates for 2013. Jamie Foxx will host next week with Ne-Yo, and Martin Short and Paul McCartney are up on the 15th; after that, it’s up to America (well, sometimes). And I don’t trust America. America is too hung up on ska right now, and I see a lone wolf in the pack of commenters calling out for Eric Dane to host. What if that person has a high Klout score? I’m afraid of Americans. I’m afraid of the world. Trust no one. Except me. Trust me. Here is my SNL host/musical guest omakase: